Interview of the Week: Matt Cherner

This week’s interview is with Quebec Tigres D Matt Cherner.

SHL Digest: We’re here this week with perhaps the biggest name to be dealt at this year’s trading deadline, Matt Cherner.  Matt, thanks for speaking with us.

Matt Cherner
Matt Cherner

Matt Cherner: Hello there.  We meet again!

SHLD: Yes, indeed!  We spoke to you last year, when you were a member of the Dakota Jackalopes.  At the time, you expressed a clear desire to stay and sign an extension.  A year later, you find yourself playing for another team and heading into free agency after the season.  What are your thoughts on that?

MC: Well, obviously, things didn’t work out like I thought.  I’d played my whole professional career with Dakota, and I wanted to stick around, even though it’s obvious that it’s going to be a rebuild there.  I felt a connection to the city and the fans.

SHLD: Your love for the team and the city was obvious.  When the trade went down, you broke down while you were talking to reporters about it.

MC: Yeah, that was huge for me, since I’m not a real emotional-type guy.  But it hit me like I was leaving home, because that’s what Dakota was to me.

SHLD: Did you have any conversations with the team about an extension before you were dealt?

MC: Yeah.  We tried to, at least.  Going into [last] offseason, my agent and I thought it would be great to go ahead and get the contract done, so that we wouldn’t have it hanging over us all season.  But [the Jackalopes] didn’t really engage.  They’d say things like, “We really appreciate you, and we want to get something done when the time is right,” but when it came time to talk numbers and term, they wouldn’t commit.

SHLD: That must have been tough for you, given your commitment to the team.

MC: Definitely.  We made it clear that I’d consider a bit of a hometown discount, but it didn’t help.  We threw some numbers at them to try to get things moving, and they’d say, “We don’t know if we can do that.”  We’d ask for a counter, and they wouldn’t.  So that was frustrating, but at least it let me know that the writing was on the wall.

SHLD: There have been a lot of rumors that the Jackalopes are in financial trouble.  Based on your negotiations, or lack thereof, do you think that’s true?

MC: I’m not going to speculate about that, because I don’t really know.  They never opened their books to show me or anything.  Besides, I’m focused on the future and looking forward, not back at the past.

SHLD: Fair enough!  Let’s talk about your new team, then.  How has your transition to the Tigres gone so far?

MC: It’s been really great.  All the guys have welcomed me, and the minute I set foot in the clubhouse, it was like I’d been there for years.  This is a team with a strong camaraderie and a good sense of their identity, and I feel like I’ve fit in great.

SHLD: And how has it been adjusting to life in Quebec?

MC: I like it!  Obviously, the vibe there is different than it is in Rapid City, but they both have that kind of small-town feel that I like.  If I’d been moving to, say, New York, it would have been a different thing.  And the fans in Quebec are really passionate, at least as much as the Dakota fans.  I couldn’t have asked for a much better environment for going somewhere new.

SHLD: The Tigres are hanging around the periphery of the Eastern playoff race, but they haven’t been able to break through so far.  What do you think the team needs to do in order to get back to the playoffs?

MC: We’ve just got to keep playing the disciplined, heavy hockey that we’re known for.  On offense, we’re doing a good job looking for quality shots.  Maybe if we can open it up a bit and activate the D a little more on offense, that would be good.  Mostly, I think we keep playing our game and good things will happen, especially once we get Zarko [C Drustan Zarkovich] and Fisk [LW Stellan Fisker] back.

SHLD: One last question: As we mentioned at the top of the interview, you’ll be a free agent at the end of the season.  Based on what you’ve seen with the Tigres so far, could you see yourself re-signing here?

MC: Hey, who knows where life takes me, right?  At the end of the season, I’ll be looking at my options and see whether they’re interested in me.  But I can definitely tell you that nothing I’ve seen so far would make me not want to stay here long-term.

SHLD: Sounds good!  Thanks again for your time, Matt, and good luck the rest of the season.

MC: Appreciate it.  The stretch run’s going to be crazy!

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Jackalopes Slice Payroll Again, Deal Cherner, Anderson

One of the ongoing storylines in the SHL over the last couple of seasons has been the Dakota Jackalopes’ financial stability.  The Jackalopes have steadily pared payroll over the last couple of seasons, to the point that observers around the league have wondered whether the team will survive.  Those rumors bubbled up early this season when Dakota dealt netminder Dennis Wampler a few weeks after signing him to a sizable free-agent deal.  They swirled again a couple weeks later when goalie Christien Adamsson ripped the team as “cheap” in a postgame rant.

With the trading deadline arriving this week, the Jackalopes were expected to consider trades that would reduce their payroll even further.  They did just that, trading both of their top-pairing defenseman north of the border: Matt Cherner was dealt to the Quebec Tigres, while Rusty Anderson was sent to the surging Saskatchewan Shockers.

Predictably, the trades set off another round of rumors that the Jackalopes are in financial trouble.  GM Paul Mindegaard stoutly rebuffed those rumors while announcing the deals to the press.  “Neither of these was a dump deal,” said Mindegaard.  “These are hockey trades, and we think they’re going to make us stronger in the long run.”

Mindegaard noted that both Cherner and Anderson will be free agents in this offseason, and that Dakota had concluded that they couldn’t resign either player.  “We’ve been in talks with Matt’s and Rusty’s agents for a while now, but we’ve recognized there isn’t a fit there,” the Dakota GM stated.  “And we’re not competing for a playoff spot, so we made the difficult decision to make these trades and get some value back.”

The trade of Cherner was particularly hard on both the player and the fans.  The defenseman has been with Dakota since the SHL’s inception, and he has developed over time into one of the league’s top two-way defensemen.  Cherner has also been vocal about his desire to stay with the Jackalopes.  When news of the deal came down, he broke down in front of reporters.

“I’ve really been hoping there was a way that this wouldn’t happen,” Cherner said.  “Playing for this team in front of these fans has been a real joy.  This has become my home.  I guess I’ve seen the writing on the wall for a while, but now that it’s here, I just – just can’t… sorry, I have to stop now.”

In exchange for Cherner, the Tigres sent D Kirby Hanlon, C Jacob Cunniff, and their first-round pick to Dakota.  The 21-year-old Hanlon is having a solid rookie season with Quebec, putting up 16 points (3 goals, 13 assists).  Cunniff, also 21, has been a steady contributor with Quebec’s CHL affiliate (12 goals, 20 assists on the season), and he addresses a position of need for the Jackalopes, who are very weak in the middle.

“Matt’s one of the best defensemen in the league, and we weren’t going to let him go for cheap,” said Mindegaard.  “We got two very promising young guys – a quality blueliner and a top prospect center – plus a first.  I’ll stand behind that.”

Quebec, meanwhile, views Cherner as just the shot in the arm they need to make up ground in the East playoff race.  “Our identity is built around defense first,” said Tigres GM Pete Gondret.  “We’ve struggled a bit with keeping guys healthy, but we’ve added the best player available at the deadline.  I can’t wait to see what he achieves with us.”

To acquire Anderson, the Shockers parted with C Tanner Brooks.  The 22-year-old appeared in the CHL All-Star game; he’s known as strong on defense, and his offensive game has blossomed this season.  He’s widely regarded as the best center who hadn’t yet made the SHL.

“Tanner is a player we’ve coveted for a long time,” said Mindegaard.  “Between him and Jake Cunniff, we’ve gotten a lot stronger in our weakest area.  We’ve taken a step back on the blueline, but we have a lot of defensive prospects in the pipeline.”

This is the first time Saskatchewan has been a buyer at the deadline, and GM Cooper Matthews appreciates his haul.  “Rusty Anderson fits right in with our blueline corps, and strengthens us in an area where we’re already strong,” Matthews told reporters.  “It was a tough decision to part with Tanner, and I know I probably made [the Jackalopes] crazy going back and forth on that.  But we see an opportunity here, and we’re going for it.”

It must be noted that with the deals, the Jackalopes shaved about $2 million off of a payroll that was already second-lowest in the league.  Mindegaard stressed that he plans to work quickly to sign extensions with their newly-acquired players, as well as key members of their existing team.  “

“We’re not going broke, folks,” said the Dakota GM.  “Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s fake news.”

Adamsson Slams Jackalopes as “Cheap”

It’s no surprise to anyone in SHL circles that the Dakota Jackalopes are a team with a tight budget.  They play in the smallest market in the league, and after loading up in an unsuccessful attempt to challenge the power teams in the West, they’ve been cutting payroll the last couple of seasons.

If the Jackalopes players were upset about the cost-cutting, they’ve been quiet about it… until now.  G Christien Adamsson touched off a firestorm this week with a series of jokes accusing the organization of being cheap.

Christien Adamsson

Adamsson was interviewed after Sunday’s 5-3 loss to Saskatchewan, and he seemed visibly perturbed before the questions even started.  When a reporter asked the netminder if he was learning to coordinate with the team’s young defense, Adamsson snapped.

“Don’t say ‘young,’ say ‘cheap,’” the goalie said.  “Call it what it is.  This so-called ‘youth movement’ isn’t about building for the future, it’s about getting rid of the guys who make money.  You think they traded Wamp [G Dennis Wampler] to build for the future?”

Adamsson cited D Matt Cherner, who is in the final year of his contract, as an example of the team’s frugality.  “He loves it here, wants to stay.  He’d sign a lifetime deal here if he could.  But you know he’s going to get traded because they can’t afford him.  Just like Karly [C Lars Karlsson] and Bells [C Harvey Bellmore] last year.  Pretty soon, it’ll just be [LW] Ryan [Airston] and a bunch of 21-year-olds making the league minimum.  Maybe they won’t even keep Ryan.”

Adamsson finished on a light-hearted note: “We’re thinking about getting jobs at the Hardee’s down the street, or maybe starting a lemonade stand, so we can put a few bucks in the piggy bank and they might be able to keep some of our guys.  Every little bit helps, right?”

Adamsson’s jokes further fueled speculation that the Jackalopes were in serious financial trouble.  GM Paul Mindegaard firmly shot down those rumors.  “Everybody is getting their paychecks, and we’re doing fine financially,” Mindegaard told reporters.  “Ask anyone around here.  Any of that kind of talk can just stop.”

The GM defended the Wampler deal and the team’s other recent moves, denying that the team was executing a mere salary dump.  “Before last season, ownership and I made the difficult decision that the team we had was not built to win a title.  Since then, we’ve been looking to move some of our veteran guys, load up on prospects, and give the younger guys a chance to shine.

“Do we have to be careful with our money?  Absolutely.  But are we just dumping salaries to be cheap?  Absolutely not.  Coming from Christien, a guy I consider to be a part of our Dakota family, that’s a disappointing remark.”

Mindegaard denied that the team had decided not to re-sign Cherner, saying “we’re actively engaged with Matt and his agent to see if there’s a fit.  How that will turn out, I don’t know, but we certainly haven’t closed the door.”

For his part, Cherner declined to comment on Adamsson’s assessment of Dakota’s finances.  “I’m letting my agent handle all that; I’m focused on the here and now.  All I can tell you is, nobody’s said no yet.”

Other players, while declining to comment on the record, indicated agreement with Adamsson.  “A lot of guys are wondering about their future,” said one player.  “Once their rookie contracts expire and they start making real money, are they out the door?  A lot of guys are watching to see what happens with Matt.  If he can’t get a big-money deal from this team, no one can.”

Interview of the Week: Matt Cherner

This week’s interview is with Dakota Jackalopes D Matt Cherner.

SHL Digest: We’re here this week with Matt Cherner, top defenseman for the Dakota Jackalopes.  Matt, thanks for speaking with us.

Matt Cherner

Matt Cherner: Sure thing, it’s my pleasure.

SHLD: At last week’s trading deadline, your name was one that came up often as a possible trade candidate.  But the deadline came and went, and you remained with Dakota, even as teammates like Lars Karlsson and Harvey Bellmore were traded.  Are you happy to still be with the Jackalopes?

MC: Absolutely, I am.  The trading deadline can be tough on a guy, especially if he has a family like I do.  I’m very happy to still be here in Dakota.  My family is here, and my teammates and friends are here.  This is where I want to be.

SHLD: Even though it’s a rebuilding team that’s not going to the playoffs?

MC: Yes.

SHLD: You wouldn’t rather be on a contending team?

MC: I think it would be great if we were contending.  But leaving Dakota to go to another team… I’m happy here.

SHLD: What is it about Dakota that you like so much?

MC: Well, for one thing, it’s a small town, and I’m a small-town guy.  This reminds me a lot of my home back in Red Deer.  I feel at home here more than I would in New York or Seattle or Washington.  And there’s a real family feeling here.  The fans, the players, the coaches… we’re all part of one big family.  I love that.

SHLD: Speaking of Dakota being a small town: Your stats make a strong case for you as one of the league’s best defensemen.  And yet, when people talk about the best blueliners in the league, your name often gets overlooked.  Do you think that playing for Dakota hurts you in terms of league-wide recognition?

MC: I don’t know, it might.  Maybe if I played for New York or Michigan, more people would know about me.  But who cares?  I’m not doing this for glory.  I’m in this for love of the sport and to try to win games.  That’s what counts.

SHLD: Obviously, the Jackalopes have a lot of new faces this season: a new coach and a lot of new young players.  How do you feel about all the change?

MC: I think it’s great.  Coach [Flim] Dahlgren is a smart, patient guy, and he’s been doing a good job bringing everybody along.  And I like the young guys we’ve got, especially the defensemen.  We used to be an all-offense, super-aggressive kind of club, and we’re becoming more balanced.  I think we’ve got a great up-and-coming group, and I’ve taken it on myself to try to teach them whatever I can.

SHLD: Are there any young blueliners that you think we should really keep an eye on?

MC: Alex Angelos is a really remarkable guy; so fast, a terrific shot, a great head for offense.  You can’t teach natural talent like that.  I’ve been working with him on polishing his defensive skills: backchecking, gapping up, things like that.  And Sergei Trefilov is a great, rugged defender.  He reminds me a lot of myself when I was younger.

SHLD: One more question.  Your contract is up at the end of next season.  Are you looking to sign a long-term extension to keep you in Dakota?

MC: I can’t speak to what the team has in mind, or if I’m in their plans long-term.  But I can say that I’m definitely open to that.  I’m happy here, and I think we’re building in the right direction.  If the team is interested in making that kind of commitment, I’d love to have that conversation.

SHLD: Well, Matt, thanks for your time and good luck the rest of the season!

MC: I appreciate it.

2018 Western All-Star Roster

The roster for the Western Division in the 2018 SHL All-Star Game, which will be held at Michigan’s Cadillac Place, was announced today by coach Sam Castor.  The selections were as follows:

First Line

LW: Jerry Koons, AnchorageIt’s the second straight All-Star appearance for the Igloos winger, but it’s his first time being voted into the starting lineup.  In a reverse of last year’s results, Koons was voted in over Dakota’s “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston.  He had a breakout season in 2017, scoring 44 goals and 90 points and winning the MVP award.  He hasn’t been on that same pace this season, but he’s off to a solid point; his 35 points put him in the top 10 in the league.

D: Fritz Kronstein, MichiganThe Wolves remain the top defensive squad in the SHL, and their top defensive pairing was rewarded with their second straight starting appearance.  This season, Kronstein was the top-vote getter among all defensemen, a recognition of his emergence as a two-way force.  He leads the Wolves with 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists), and he is the leader among all blueliners in the league in plus-minus with a +24 rating.

C: Jake Frost, Anchorage.  For the second straight season, Frost was the runaway winner of the starting center spot for the West, garnering almost 60% of the votes at the position.  The tall center has been one of the SHL’s top scorers since his debut, and this season is no exception; his 22 goals are the fourth-highest total in the SHL.  “Having Koonsy and Frosty out there on the top line, that makes you feel good as a coach,” said Castor.  “With the kind of year we’re having, I wasn’t taking that for granted.”

D: “Mad Max” Madison, Michigan.  It wasn’t clear whether Madison was going to be able to make the game, as he has missed the last three weeks with a lower-body injury.  But he has declared that he’s “feeling great and ready to go,” and plans to make his return to the ice in front of his home crowd.  Madison’s numbers have taken a hit due to his injury, but he was off to a solid start before getting hurt, putting up 3 goals and 7 assists in the first 15 games of the season.

RW: Vince Mango, Seattle.  The Sailors sniper has proven to be a polarizing figure around the league, as his theatrical goal celebrations and loquaciousness with the press rub some traditionalist fans the wrong way.  But he’s attracted enough fans to squeak out a narrow victory in fan voting, garnering a few thousand more votes than Michigan’s Gordon Lunsford and Anchorage’s Nicklas Ericsson.  Mango is known for his scoring, and he has 16 tallies on the season, which places him among the Top 10 in the league.  Mango described the results as a “changing of the guard.”

 

Second Line

LW: Troy Chamberlain, SaskatchewanThe Shockers winger makes his second straight All-Star appearance.  Chamberlain continues to be the driving force behind Saskatchewan’s offense, leading the team in both goals (with 13) and points (29).  But he’s also not just a force on offense; he’s known around the league as a diligent and capable two-way player.  Although the Shockers have slipped back in the playoff race recently, Chamberlain’s play has been a key to their push to contend.

D: Wyatt Barnes, Saskatchewan. For the second season in a row, Chamberlain and Barnes represent the Shockers’ only All-Star representatives.  Barnes continues to emerge as one of the SHL’s top blueline talents.  His 21 assists are the most among Saskatchewan players, and he’s also managed to light the lamp four times.  In addition, he’s a rugged and hard-hitting defender who’s been nicknamed “Stonewall” by his teammates due to his ability to deny opposing skaters entry into the offensive zone.  He’s even in plus-minus rating this season, one of only three Saskatchewan players not in the negative.

C: Lars Karlsson, Dakota.  Karlsson is one of two Jackalopes players appearing in this year’s All-Star Game, although it’s hard to know how much longer he will remain in a Dakota uniform.  Karlsson’s contract is up at the end of the season, and he figures to be one of the most sought-after rentals, as the rebuilding ‘Lopes seem unlikely to resign him.  The veteran center has done a good job blocking out the distractions and is putting up a fine season, leading the team in both goals (15) and points (31).

D: Ted Keefe, Anchorage. The top two defensive pairings for the West look the same this year as last, as Castor turned to his veteran puck-moving stalwart to fill out the second pair.  Keefe turns 33 this season, but is playing like a man a decade younger.  He’s got the best offensive numbers among the Igloos’ defensive corps, with 8 goals and 19 assists on the season.  He’s a hard-checking defenseman who likes to scrap, and he’s one of the league’s best at steals and forcing turnovers as well.

RW: Nicklas Ericsson, Anchorage. As mentioned above, Ericsson narrowly missed being voted into a starting slot on the Western squad, and Castor had no hesitation about picking his own player to complete the second line. Despite having what for him is a bit of a down season (7 goals, 20 assists), Ericsson continues to be regarded as one of the league’s elite passers.  “He could fit a puck through the eye of a needle if he had to,” said Castor.

 

Third Line

LW: Pascal Royal, Kansas CityThe SHL requires that every team be represented on the All-Star teams, and Royal is the Smoke’s lone representative.  The 27-year-old winger has had something of a career resurgence in KC, and he leads the team in points (31) and assists (19).  The All-Star Game is something of a showcase for Royal, who seems a likely possibility to be moved at the trading deadline.

D: Matt Cherner, Dakota.  Cherner makes his first-ever All-Star appearance.  Like his Jackalopes teammate Karlsson, he’s likely to attract attention from teams around the trading deadline, although given that his contract doesn’t expire until 2020, he’s less likely to be moved.  Cherner is one of the league’s best offensive-minded defensemen, and he’s putting up a strong season, scoring 7 goals and 23 assists to date.

CWarren Marlow, Michigan. Marlow was not originally chosen as an All-Star last season, but he wound up going as a replacement after teammate Hunter Bailes suffered an injury in the days before the game.  He is the only Wolves player selected by Castor… a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed at Cadillac Place. Marlow has actually recorded more points than Bailes so far this season (27 to 26), although Bailes has scored more goals (18 to 13).  He also has the unusual distinction of being one of four regular starters in the SHL who has yet to record a penalty this season.

D: Dave Frederick, Anchorage. In a selection considered debatable by some, Castor tabbed the 31-year-old Frederick to make his All-Star debut in the West’s bottom pairing.  Wolves fans argued for the selection of Brooks Zabielski or Frank Mudrick over Frederick, while Sailors supporters protested that Doron Lidjya was unfairly snubbed.  In fairness to Frederick, he has some points in his favor: he’s second among Western defenders in plus-minus at +19, and he’s produced on offense, putting up 4 goals and 11 assists so far this season.

RW: Elliott Pepper, Seattle. The Sailors get their second representative in Pepper, who’s making his first All-Star appearance.  The winger got off to a strong start that earned him Player of the Week honors in the season’s first week.  He’s cooled off some since, but he remains one of the league’s better offensive performers, with 16 goals (tied with fellow All-Star Mango for the Seattle team lead) and 13 assists so far on the year.

 

Goaltenders

Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist, Michigan.  Although the SHL’s best-bearded goalie isn’t quite as dominant this season as he has been in years past, he still won the starting nod handily, according to the fan vote.  Lundquist’s numbers are certainly nothing to sneeze at, either: his 18 wins are tied for the league lead, while his 1.91 GAA is second-best and his .926 save percentage is good for third overall.

Ty Worthington, Anchorage. The Igloos netminder will be the Western backup once again this time around. Although Worthington got off to something of a slow start this season, he’s rebounded nicely in recent weeks, helping Anchorage firm up their hold on second place in the West.  Overall, his numbers remain quite respectable: 13-11-0, 2.41 GAA, .923 save percentage  — good enough to get the nod over Saskatchewan’s Zeke Zagurski.

West Wide Open

Looking at the Western Division standings about one-third of the way through the 2018 SHL season, one thing is clear: the Michigan Gray Wolves are the overwhelming favorites to win the division title.  They’re already 12 points clear of their nearest competitor and are outscoring their opponents by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.  Goaltender Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist and the defense remain as stingy as ever; even a serious injury to top blueline “Mad Max” Madison has barely slowed the Wolves down.  Michigan seems well on its way to nailing down that top spot.

But there are two playoff spots in each division this season.  And if first place appears all but sewn up, second place is up for grabs.  No team is out of the running, and no team seems to have much of an edge at this stage.

“It’s just a wide-open brawl, is what it is,” said Saskatchewan Shockers D Wyatt Barnes.  “A total pig pile.  No one knows what’s going to happen.”

At the start of the season, the Anchorage Igloos were heavily favored to make it to the playoffs.  Indeed, they’ve held down second place for much of the year.  But the defending division champs haven’t been playing up to their usual standards; in fact, they’ve struggled to get much above the .500 mark, and they haven’t won more than two in a row since the first week of the season.  “We’ve really struggled to find our rhythm,” said Igloos coach Sam Castor.  “We show flashes of our true form, especially against tough opponents, but then we sleepwalk against lesser teams.  We’re going to get more consistent if we’re going to make the playoffs.”

This week’s games demonstrated Castor’s point.  Anchorage put up a huge statement win on Sunday, stomping mighty Michigan 5-0.  But they followed up that effort with a pair of embarrassing losses, falling 3-1 to Dakota and 7-5 to Kansas City.  “I know the feeling in the clubhouse is that we’re the superior team,” said the Anchorage coach, “but we’ve got to prove that on the ice.”

Two points behind Anchorage are the Saskatchewan Shockers, who look ready to shake their hapless reputation.  They had a shot to take over sole possession of second place on Friday, but dropped a 5-2 decision to the Igloos.  The key to the Shockers’ success this season has been their defense.  Coach Myron Beasley has made a point of tightening up his team’s play in its own end, and his efforts are paying dividends.  Saskatchewan is limiting opponents to 29.3 shots per game, the fourth-best total in the league.  The improved defense has been a blessing for goalie Zeke Zagurski, who has historically faced a barrage of enemy shots on a nightly basis.  This season, he’s lowered his GAA to 2.52 while stopping shots at a .919 clip.  Backup Shawn Stickel has been even better in limited action, compiling a stingy 1.33 GAA and .929 save percentage.

Unfortunately, the Shockers’ defensive efforts seem to be taking a toll on their offense.  Saskatchewan has averaged 32.8 shots per game, solidly in the middle of the pack, but they’ve only scored 53 goals, third-worst total in the league.  “We’re not putting ourselves in position to get top-quality shots,” said LW Troy Chamberlain.  “We’re not getting the net-front presence we need to create chaos.  We need some more of those greasy goals that a team like Michigan is so good at.”

Saskatchewan is one point up on the Seattle Sailors, who are the Shockers’ mirror image.  The Sailors have a potent attack, having scored 75 goals already this season, led by RWs Elliott Pepper (13 goals) and Vince Mango (11).  However, their fast tempo and aggressive approach has led to a vulnerability on defense.  Seattle has given up 82 goals, the highest total in the league.  Part of the issue is their tendency to allow odd-man rushes (they’re allowing 37 shots per game).  They’re not getting much help between the pipes, either.  The Sailors have rotated between Rocky Goldmire (6-7-0, 4.12 GAA, .893 save percentage) and “Jersey Mike” Ross (3-3-1, 4.00, .883); neither has done enough to nail down the starting job.

“We need to spend a little less time on the fun stuff and a little more on the lunch-pail, building-block stuff,” said Sailors coach Harold Engellund.

One point back of the Sailors are the Dakota Jackalopes, having a bit of a surprising season under new coach Flim Dahlgren.  The Jackalopes had a good deal of success during the inter-divison round last week, winning five in a row against the East.  They’ve come back to earth this week, dropping three of their last four.  But for a team that’s widely assumed to be in a rebuilding mode, Dakota has been surprisingly competitive.  They’re getting a boost from two of the only remaining veterans on the team: C Lars Karlsson (tied for the team lead with 11 goals) and D Matt Cherner (whose 19 assists).  Karlsson and Cherner are widely assumed to be top targets at the trading deadline; if the Jackalopes remain in contention, GM Paul Mindegaard may have some difficult decisions to make.

Even the expansion Kansas City Smoke are only seven points out of second place.  To be fair, their relative success to this point has been driven largely by an unsustainble shot-conversion percentage (they’re scoring on almost 14% of their shots, by far the highest rate in the league).  That said, they’re seeing strong seasons from LW Pascal Royal (12 goals, 28 points), C Mike Rivera (13 goals), and rookie Zachary Merula (8 goals, 18 points).  “We’re definitely not expecting a playoff spot this year,” said coach Randy Bergner.  “But I’m really liking what I’m seeing out of the boys so far.”

There’s plenty of time left in the season, and things could shake out in the coming weeks.  Anchorage could take control of the race; Dakota and Kansas City could fall off the pace; Saskatchewan or Seattle could get more balanced and go on a run.  But for the time being, the race remains a muddle.  “It’s up for grabs,” said Seattle’s Mango.  “Anybody could swoop in and take this.  This is a chance to show what we’re made of.”